High Court Decision on Public Order Act Balances Human Rights and Statutory Interpretation

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2938 (Admin)
Judgment on


The High Court’s decision in the case of Director of Public Prosecutions v Manchester City Magistrates’ Court represents a nuanced application of statutory interpretation and human rights considerations within the context of the Public Order Act 1986 and the Human Rights Act 1998. This analysis delves into the critical legal principles addressed in the judgment, including the burden of proof within a statutory defence, the role of proportionality in human rights, and the application criteria for judicial review of magisterial decisions.

Key Facts

The case arose from the acquittal of interested parties charged under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 for using “insulting words” with intent to cause “alarm”, during a protest aimed at a political figure. The prosecution’s case stated appeal was rejected as “frivolous” by the Senior District Judge, prompting a judicial review claim on three main issues: a misdirection regarding the application of the reasonableness defence, a failure to consider highly relevant considerations, and the incorrect characterization of the prosecution’s application to state a case.

Burden of Proof in Reasonable Conduct Defence

A pivotal issue in the ruling involved the burden of proof associated with the Reasonable Conduct Defence under s.4A(3)(b) of the 1986 Act. The court upheld that the defence bears the onus to demonstrate that the conduct was reasonable, consistent with conventional legislative interpretation. However, when it pertains to the evaluation of proportionality in the context of Convention rights interference, the prosecution must convincingly establish that a conviction and interference are justified and proportionate.

Proportionality in Human Rights

Another legal principle spotlighted is the role of proportionality assessments in the application of Convention rights within the criminal context. The court affirms the necessity for a fact-sensitive proportionality assessment when rights under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights are engaged and not addressed intrinsically by the statutory elements of the offence.

Judicial Review of Magisterial Decisions

The court’s treatment of the judicial review claim also elucidates the stringent standard for deeming an application to state a case as “frivolous” under the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980. The judgment reinforces that this threshold is high and that such a characterization requires a significant error or misconception regarding the legal basis of the application.


The High Court dismissed the judicial review claim, solidifying the acquittal decision and confirming the proportionality assessment as vital to the Reasonable Conduct Defence. In doing so, the court emphasized a disciplined approach, where the defendant’s rights under Articles 10 and 11 are given substantial weight in determining the reasonableness of the conduct.


The Director of Public Prosecutions v Manchester City Magistrates’ Court ruling imparts critical guidance on how Convention rights interface with domestic legislation in ruling on public order offences. The High Court meticulously supported the Senior District Judge’s reasoning and evaluation of proportionality, legitimizing the judicial approach towards balancing individual rights with the necessity for legal restrictions. This analysis underscores the judicial inclination towards upholding human rights considerations in the face of conflicting statutory defences and prosecutorial challenges.